Tech super PAC startups could tap billions

Google among powerhouses behind for-profit university tied to new political groups

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A for-profit university bankrolled by prominent tech firms and co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil is behind four separate super PACs formed this week, according to interviews and documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Randi Willis, an official at Singularity University, confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that leaders at her institution will later this year begin determining how to best use these new political committees, which could tap into the wealth of tech industry titans.

"Instead of waiting for people in office to come to us, the idea is, 'Let's put people in office,'" said Willis, the executive programs director for the university who also serves as the super PACs' treasurer. "We have a number of millionaires and billionaires who come through here and who we believe would consider contributing."

Willis added that it's "a little bit too preliminary" to say what candidates the super PACs might support or who'd fund the super PACs, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.

"For now, I'm holding the names — sort of squatting on them, for lack of a better term," Willis continued, noting that could take months to determine the super PACs' strategies. The groups are not likely to participate in the 2014 midterm elections.

Update, 10:19 p.m., May 20: Willis has filed paperwork with the FEC to terminate the four super PACs, according to a statement from Singularity University. Willis was not authorized to form the super PACs on the university's behalf, the university said. Update here.

While hardly a household name, Singularity University is supported by a slew of corporations that are.

Its listed "corporate founders" include Google, Cisco, Genentech, Nokia and Autodesk. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have personally associated themselves with Singularity University.

"Corporate partners" include General Electric, the Credit Union Roundtable and pharmaceutical company Celgene.

Kurzweil, the Singularity University co-founder, today works as Google's engineering director. He's an outspoken believer that technology and humanity will increasingly combine. And he's long been bent on outwitting death itself.

Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive of the X PRIZE Foundation, is Singularity University's other co-founder.

PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who last election cycle contributed $2.6 million to the conservative Club for Growth Action super PAC and another $2 million to a pro-Ron Paul super PAC, also has ties to Singularity University. Thiel is a co-founder of the Singularity Summit, an annual conference on artificial intelligence that Singularity University acquired in 2012, and he has contributed to the university through his private foundation.

Its faculty, meanwhile, includes people who have worked in high-profile jobs at Microsoft, Yahoo! and consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The company's four new super PACs are named "Singularity PAC," "Impact," "Global Grand Challenges" and "10^9+" — the latter a reference to Singularity University's stated goal of helping its graduate program students develop "the tools, knowledge, skills and mindset for delivering real humanitarian impact to 1 billion people."

The university, which recently transitioned from a nonprofit corporation to a for-profit corporation, conducts a variety of educational programs primarily targeted at tech-savvy graduate students and industry executives.

Its headquarters are located at a NASA research facility and students might pay five-figure sums for a few days or weeks of instruction.

Singularity University is not the first for-profit education company to wade into the world of super PACs.

The Apollo Group — the parent company of the University of Phoenix — has itself financially boosted super PACs affiliated with GOP politicians such as 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

The Arizona-based company has donated about $140,000 to these three super PACs combined since early 2012, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal campaign finance records.

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.